Thursday, 10 July 2014

Formulation: Recognising a Key Enabling Technology for SusChem

At the 10th Anniversary SusChem Stakeholder Meeting (#SusChem10), held last month (June 2014) in Brussels, participants contributed to the development of the SusChem Strategic Innovation and Research Agenda (SIRA). The SIRA will form the basis of SusChem’s input to forthcoming calls for the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme and other European and national research and innovation programmes. The SIRA highlights the importance of sustainable chemistry and biotechnology in responding to the key Societal Challenges facing Europe and addressed by Horizon 2020 as part of the EU’s Europe 2020 growth strategy

In this special article SusChem board member Prof Rodney Townsend (above) outlines the opportunities for SusChem in the Health and Wellbeing area and how the stakeholder event highlighted a new area for potential SusChem research and innovation activities.

On 11 and 12 June at the Stakeholder Event breakout sessions were held to address each Societal Challenge (SC) addressed in the SIRA. Conference participants commented on and added to draft SIRA documents for each SC which had been prepared in advance of the meeting.

Although health and well-being topics were part of the initial discussions when SusChem was first established in 2004, to date SusChem has not considered in depth how innovative sustainable chemistry could deliver health benefits, generally leaving this to Horizon 2020 activities linked more strongly to the pharmaceutical industries, such as the Innovative Medicines Initiative, the Active and Assisted Living Programme and the Joint Programming Initiative on Antimicrobial Resistance.

SusChem well-being
However, it is recognised that there are a number of areas where SusChem could complement these activities, which are critically important if the objectives of Horizon 2020’s SC1 (‘Health, demographic change and wellbeing’) are to be delivered.

A number of topics have already been highlighted in personalised diagnosis using imaging; and responsive materials for prosthetic devices including:
  • Innovative further development of highly sensitive imaging technologies for tumours, ischaemia and neurodegeneration using more specific and multifunctional chemical contrast agents and point-of-care diagnostics: an exciting prospect is to improve the specificity of expensive chemical markers, thus simultaneously increasing sustainability and reducing use of expensive reagents. 
  • Further development of technologies that assist and enable those who either are partially and progressively disabled to continue to contribute positively to society for longer: Here, we envisage an enhanced role for new (‘smart’) materials, such as haptic (reactive to touch or other sensory input), photoactive or piezoelectric polymers, as well as improved prosthetic devices and biomedical implants containing improved biocompatible soft materials for artificial limbs and the like.
In addition at the Stakeholder Meeting a key issue came to the fore during breakout discussions: formulation. This is an area that is often taken for granted, yet is of profound importance across the whole of sustainable chemical technology, pharmacology and biotechnology. Formulation comprises a set of key skills and technologies that are absolutely critical for bringing many new inventions and advances in technologies to market in nearly every industry sector.

For example, starting with health, it is fine to design at a molecular level a new contrast agent that can so specifically target characteristic moieties present in a tumour that it can lead to unambiguous identification of the location, size and nature of a tumour. But, can one also design a suitable vehicle for that contrast agent that will ensure that the contrast agent is dispersed quickly through to all the organs in the body, is kept stable as it is dispersed, and delivered in a targeted manner?

Designing a suitable vehicle to achieve this is what formulation is all about. And successful formulation technology is not just important for health applications. It forms the basis of many businesses beyond medical and/or pharmaceutical, including the processing, manufacture and delivery-in-use of foods, personal products, cosmetics, and paints. It also has a role in crude oil extraction, including enhanced recovery concepts such as ‘fracking’, vehicle fuel or lubrication systems and very many other areas.  

The theory that underpins formulation is primarily physico-chemical and was traditionally referred to as ‘colloid science’.  It is concerned with the quantification of the forces that operate at interfaces between discrete physical domains, and how these forces operate and change over a hierarchy of length and time scales in different types of colloidal systems for example suspensions, sols, pastes, gels, foams, emulsions, micro-emulsions, gels, polymer and fat crystal networks, complex fluids and liquid crystals.

These forces combine to yield the observed useful properties of these systems including targeted delivery, visco-elasticity, opalescence, thixotropy, adherence and ‘spreadability’, softness, and dispersibility etc. They also are key to the delivery of product characteristics under different physical and chemical conditions such as the clarity and response rate of a LCD phone display, when an ice cream will soften and melt, how long it takes for an emollient hand cream to spread and penetrate skin, the touch or taste or smell of a food or medicine, how easy a medicine is to swallow and how fast the active components ingest through the stomach and intestinal walls amongst many other examples.

A new SusChem KET?
Although the physics underpinning these phenomena is fairly well understood, this understanding does not in itself lead one to be able to a priori formulate a product with the desired properties. The ability to do this lies with physical and synthetic chemists together with chemical and process engineers and comprises a highly valuable set of skills, based on a sound knowledge of theory and years of experience. But this skill base, so important for future innovation, is declining across Europe as a whole.

The Stakeholder Meeting highlighted the need to nurture and build this skill set as a SusChem key enabling technology (KET) that is applicable across and along value chains that cover many different industry sectors.

In his closing remarks at the 12th Stakeholder Meeting, SusChem Chairman Dr Klaus Sommer emphasised the need for us to highlight “formulation for delivery” in the SusChem SIRA. This will probably now result in the inclusion of a proposal for a Horizon 2020 Coordination and Support Action (CSA) in the SIRA that would bring the chemical, biotechnological and pharmaceutical sectors together to exchange information and enhance each other’s innovative skills in formulation.

For more information on SusChem activities and the new SusChem SIRA contact Jacques Komornicki, SusChem Coordinator at Cefic.

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